It’s official. The Purge film franchise has virtually run out of ideas and has resorted to going the prequel route in order to find more stories. Well, I guess that’s a little unfair, and you’ll know what I’m referring to if you saw – actually, I guess I’d better say remember – the last installment, The Purge: Election Year. Still, beyond The First Purge – which is actually the fourth Purge – the franchise’s relationship with the big screen might become somewhat hazy as it’s now committing to the small screen with The Purge TV Series airing a ten-episode season on the USA Network in less than two months. Side note: if a ten-episode season covers one whole night of the Purge, and the Purge only lasts twelve hours, is it basically going to be filmed in real time? Should we get Kiefer Sutherland to make a cameo as Jack Bauer and just completely jump the shark? Actually, now that I think about it I wouldn’t mind a Purge crossover with 24. I mean The First Purge basically already made itself a full-fledged action movie. I digress, as that is what I’m here to review in full. Prequel joke aside, The First Purge actually manages to find some more thematic territory – or at least similar territory viewed in a new light – in what is largely a pretty contained set of plot parameters. What makes these movies slightly more elevated than just your standard slasher has always been its potent sociopolitical commentary and its ability to feel – and I can’t believe I’m about to say this – woke. And a lot of that can be attributed to creator and writer-director (but just writer this time around) James DeMonaco, who certainly wants to make you think while you scream. As far as providing visceral thrills are concerned, I’ve always found The Purge franchise to be somewhat lacking, so a lot of that weight really does lie with the thematic element. Fortunately, The First Purge feels about as realistic and psychologically sound as one might expect from an actual murder-night scenario. And though it often forgets to be a horror movie and leans a little bit too hard into action-thriller territory, the latter segment of the film truly features some of the franchise’s best fight sequences and subsequent choreography. It really isn’t masterclass cinema, and misses out on a whole bunch of opportunities it sets up for itself. But as far as the franchise as a whole is concerned, this entry may just be its strongest.
In the near future, the American economy and criminality is in a state of flux. Overthrowing the government and brandishing a new solution is the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). With psychologist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei) spearheading a new social experiment, the NFFA believes they can cure American aggression by having one night a year in which any and all crime, including murder, is legal for twelve hours. But before subjecting the entire nation to this test, the NFFA had delegated it to take place solely on New York’s Staten Island, as they promise citizens monetary compensation merely to stay on the island overnight, and an added bonus should they participate in the festivities. As many doubt there be very much bloodshed whatsoever, those of lower income gleefully accept in droves, even confidently going so far as to celebrate in the streets. However, even if the people aren’t ready to fully accept the Purge, the NFFA aren’t going to let this night be anything less than a bloody success. We center in on couple Dmitri (Y’lan Noel) and Nya (Lex Scott Davis), a drug kingpin and anti-NFFA activist, respectively. After a falling out, the Nya decides the two of them should ride out the Purge apart. But their problems have only begun, as Dmitri finds his competitors are capitalizing on the Purge by trying to take him out, while Nya realizes her brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) is participating out and about on his own and must find him before he gets himself killed. However, they must all reunite if they want to survive what the NFFA have in store for them.
Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. Yes, The Purge franchise landed an Oscar-winner in Marisa Tomei to be the creator of the actual Purge. More likely as not she was simply available while she was in-between filming Spider-Man movies. And personally speaking, she was the thing I was most looking forward to in this movie, and thus must raise my indignation upon realizing that they completely wasted her. Sure, she gets to sound somewhat educated as she exposits pseudo scientific jargon and explain to the media why the Purge would work. But that’s about it. My theory being that her character was written before she signed on but then wasn’t amended to accommodate a talent of her magnitude, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder why they never thought it prudent to get her in on the action. At least the half-baked Winchester had the admiration to give Helen Mirren center-stage and top billing. Not to mention Tomei’s character is given the most ungracious of what I guess constitutes a story arc that by the end of it, it feels like more of a slap to the face.
Speaking of wasted characters, The Purge franchise is probably only as good as the psychos it has roaming the streets looking for blood. And while those are in short supply in The First Purge, there is one fairly unnerving character set up from the very first shot of the film. Though we don’t know too much of his backstory other than he’s a crazed drug addict, it’s clear from the makeup work and the actor’s performance that the movie wanted you to remember the name Skeletor (no, not that Skeletor). He gets to slice and dice a little in the early stages of the Purge, but once the movie goes into second gear halfway through, it entirely forgets about the arc he shared with Wade’s character and shamelessly brings him back only in the form of a bland plot device. Again, it’s as if The First Purge fails to recognize a good thing when it has it and thus squanders said good thing.
But let’s get into some happy surprises, shall we? Newcomer director to the franchise Gerard McMurray does some impressive work with a few of the action sequences in the later portion of the film. All of the scenes in question taking place in an apartment building in the projects, the most notable involves a stairwell, Noel’s Dmitri, a bunch of bad NFFA dudes, and a single unbroken shot, evoking images of David Leitch and Charlize Theron’s unparalleled work in Atomic Blonde. Of course, I don’t think McMurray had the budgetary freedom to match the sequence in that film, but it’s impressive all the same for the one it’s in. Still, it’s perhaps Noel who steals the show in this the finale, who proves himself a bona fide action star in the making whose arms look real good in an undershirt. Don’t ask me exactly how his character Dmitri acquired the skillset to singlehandedly tackle a team of armed mercenaries; it’s a pretty cool scene regardless.
The actual first Purge film was often criticized for forgoing its unique premise in favor of recycling another home-invasion scenario. And in my opinion, the previous entry Election Year went too far in the opposite direction in terms of its political commentary in an actual election year that made any excess satirization on the subject almost vomit-inducing. Same reason why I couldn’t continue watching Season 7 of American Horror Story. Fortunately, The First Purge is able to find a happy medium insofar as it doesn’t shove any political correctness down your throat, but also doesn’t ignore the socioeconomic implications The Purge as an institution has on the impoverished and people of color. None of it is really anything new for the franchise, but it’s done in such an effective way that a character like Dmitri – a gun-toting drug lord – can be viewed as a savior of the African-American community in opposition to the alt-right party in power that has specifically birthed this event to exterminate those it deems either a blight or burden on society. Not to mention, the NFFA working out the kinks of their own experiment gives the series its best comedic moments.
The First Purge is a prequel when all is said and done. Meaning, don’t expect to get the big, cathartic conclusion you’d normally expect from a movie. Timeline-wise, we all know where it leads from here, so it’s understandable that DeMonaco doesn’t force a game-changing twist to the franchise. So the least someone would hope for would be for the characters to undergo some kind of change when all is said and done, but unfortunately they take a backseat to the bloodshed and the movie’s desire to wrap it up quickly once the blood stops shedding. It leaves the project as a whole feeling fairly shallow, even for a horror film, but if you’re one of those sane people who go to the theaters for The Purge every other Fourth of July not for the story, then this is probably right up your alley. The script could use a little polish, but as it stands with the rest of the series, I’d say it’s in a close tie for first with The Purge: Anarchy in terms of how not-bad it is.
Final Score: 5/10